Captive Reproduction of the Peculiar Red-bellied Macaws

(Orthopsittaca manilata)

by David T. Longo

Longo’s Aviaries Inc.
Meaford, Ontario, Canada

My visit to Suriname in September of 2003 was primarily to find new additional founder stock to increase the captive genetic diversity of species already found in Canada. One of the most intriguing birds I am still enamored with are, against my traditional taste of bright or contrasting colours and appearance, yet are very different compared to the rest of this family of parrots. I have always seemed to side with the unordinary and the red-bellied macaw is as strange as the macaws come. During my visit, I followed Orthopsittaca manilata throughout the northern Amazon rainforest within a kilometre on either side of the Coppename river. Their shyness was reflected in their preference to stay in large groups subscribing to the ‘safety in numbers’ theory. The biggest group we found in the forty-eight hours in which we searched and followed them, was between 13 – 17 birds. We encountered the grouping behaviour which adequately justified their paranoid and nervous instincts; they were rarely seen alone.

As we drove along the main east-westbound road, Mauritius Palm (Mauritia flexuosa) trees occasionally appeared alongside the road every several hundred metres or so. This same species of tree is that of which ornithologists report the red-bellied macaw to feed on exclusively. I was also opportune enough to witness manilatas feeding on these fruits as they would drop every five minutes to thump onto the ground just paces from us. Upon investigating the dropped fruits, the macaws are evidently demonstrating what I like to call the ‘friar tuck’ syndrome (Friar Tuck is an overweight character from the Robin Hood cartoon in the 1970 – 1980’s who used to constantly take one bite of a drumstick or fruit and toss the rest over his shoulder); they take 2-3 bites of the plum sized fruit, then discard it, yet there is still 80% of the fruit left to be consumed. The seeds beared from this tree have been recorded to have no fat and higher than normal levels of carbohydrate content.

As this diet is unordinary or strange, the whole biology of this species is strange. With the following variables being their high strung personality, their low fat and high carbohydrate diet; somehow in this relationship, they are able to maintain the required balance between their unique energy requirements and the way they process and burn this energy to satisfy their metabolism. I like to associate their metabolic relationship to my own; family and friends denote that I eat plenty, mostly that which is high in fat but disappears as promptly as I consume it for my less than average size, never any considerable evidence of food storage despite my large intake.

One one occasion, I did witness manilatas feeding or manipulating fruit on yet another type of palm tree. I am certain they were the Alexandra Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae); these trees are a different family of palms but was tall and thin trunked with the berries hanging in sprays of about 1.5 – 2.5m below the tree’s canopy. The seeds of this palm grow from the top of the palm, similar to the Queen (Syagrus romanzoffiana) and Mauritius palms (Mauritia flexuosa). These berries were anywhere from 10mm – 15mm on average in diameter and mainly black, to deep, dark blue. I have been told by catchers that local species of toucans (Ramphastos tucanus & Ramphastos vitellinus) and other Ramphastid spp. also feed on this berry. There have been little studies in relation to these birds and this tree, I suspect because all the literature states they are exclusive to the Mauritius palm and no one has questioned or theorized outside this. If there happens to be food shortages in certain regions where these palms are less abundant, there may be one reason they will outsource from their natural choice of the Mauritius Palm!

We initially acquired a single bird as a young pet, circa 1996, to place in our breeding program. The first pair we had originally obtained from another importer in 1999-2000. Their nervous behaviours clearly demonstrated they were wild caught specimens. We had a nestbox prepared for them to settle into despite whether or not they would breed; our initial concern was to make them feel secure. We instantly designed and prepared a seed diet of about 20 different varieties. They primarily picked the sunflower, safflower and peanuts from the provided selection. Again, these are odd choices seeing that their natural diet shows little to no evidence of fat content.

As the story went, my assistant Henri was doing normal routine errands in the aviary one Saturday, and we had noticed the new pair had been spending more time in their nestbox, but I did not think much of it. He poked his head inside the nest and saw an egg, he then promptly came inside and told me about the news. I thought he was pulling my leg simply because those that are close to me enjoy humouring my gullibility. I did not put much stock into his story because it was mid winter and I did not expect they were going to show any signs of breeding until I put them in the backyard in early spring with natural elements and more privacy. As it turned out, he convinced me to follow him into the garage and I checked the nest; after moving the female aside in the nest (she grudgingly left after a good fight) I found 3 eggs. I removed them and blocked the hole to the nest, brought them inside and candled them. All 3 eggs were fertile and appeared healthy, they were presumed to be about 10-15 days into development. I checked on them approximately two weeks later at which point the first one had hatched. I brought the clutch inside to weigh the baby, take photos and to candle the other two eggs. One was seen to be pipping and the other still had a day or two to go. What I was sincerely concerned about was the parents not feeding the baby. I saw no signs of food in the crop, but checked on the clutch again 12 hours later and found they fed the oldest chick and did not worry much about the parents feeding the young anymore.

In February of 2004, our shipment of approximately 12 manilatas arrived and was very easily agitated and irritable. During the two quarantines after leaving Suriname, we lost two birds within the first 48 hours in Europe then another within the first 48 hours in Canada. I like to use the phrase, “Look at them the wrong way and they will drop dead on you! ”, primarily to indicate or appreciate their sensitivity. When caring for these birds, ensure all their needs are met and be cautious whenever moving founder stock to ensure no losses occur. Once we moved the remaining birds to our new facility, we placed them in a 1.2m x 1.2m x 2.4m enclosure, they all moved to the top corner, furthest from human contact. It was quite apparent these reactions were not sufficient enough to keep them content, they continually tried to compete to bury themselves under one another at the very back of the enclosure to hinder from being in our view. We added blinds both in and out of the aviary so they could choose to hide behind them and to limit visual contact when we serviced any aviaries in the room. This was a necessary step to minimize their irritating alarm screeches, maintain a calm demeanor and ultimately to keep them alive.

They love water for both bathing and consuming; they do not necessarily like the cold but will bathe even on the coolest of days. Similarly to their life revolving around the palm commonly associated with the manilatas, they too associate much around water. Both in their origin and in man’s care, they drink more water in ratio vs. weight than any other species of macaw. In their natural conditions, their nesting sites are in hollowed out palms but also tend to prefer nesting trees which rise from wetlands or swampy water sources. This is a perfect location when trying to avoid nest predators like arboreal snakes and to avoid areas with heavy mammalian traffic near the tree base. At our breeding centre, we provide all our manilatas with large water bowls or 2 water bowls for this reason. When offered shallow bowls of water, even the young unweaned birds eagerly dive in and bathe like they have been practicing this technique for years. This behaviour gives the expression of being that they are able to swim just as soon as they can learn to fly; as it is indeed an essential part of their element. Their chewing habits can be incomparable to any other macaw, I keep a supply of pine cones for them to manipulate and chew from our trees on premise. Additionally, they are also offered plenty of natural branches and browse to destroy, mainly to decrease or deter this behavior in their nest cavities.

During the first few years starting in 1999 we would experiment with supplementing the offspring’s commercial handfeeding formula with peanut butter to ensure adequate fat content for the young. We based our nutritional facts on the newly arrived wild caught birds on what little literature is available on them. The birds were fed mainly peanuts which were initially the main answer to keeping the wild caught specimens or founder stock alive . Feeding the chicks 4-5 times a day, we combined a commercial handfeeding formula, with one teaspoon of peanut butter per cup and every second day we would add Lactobacillus acidophilus (probiotics) from choice of two different manufacturers. The last three clutches of 2005 and 2006, we ceased to supplement with peanut butter and the chicks developed with no obvious differences in weight gains or differences in hydration. When comparing the weight gains in our charts and plotted graphs; we found no more reason to continue using this ingredient. Their faeces are normally more watery and almost polyuric, I have made the same observations in the Tucuman Amazon (Amazona tucumana) when compared to the rest of the amazons. These two species are the lories of the macaw and amazon world in this respect. One segment I must add to this is the personalities the young develop. Never have I been so magnetically attached to their playful and rambunctious antics; their calls of interest sound like soft pleasant honks, one characteristic that is somewhat audibly addictive. I like to associate them as miniature Hyacinthine macaws; playful, gentle and loveable troublemakers all in one sweet package.

The skin colouration of the facial patch is of the most striking deep mustard yellow and brings the most attention to the red-bellied macaw. Captive birds do not retain the colour as well as the originating specimens when kept indoors. A colleague and friend, Mr. Rob Boyle of ‘African Lion Safari’ in Cambridge, Ontario and I were initially skeptical that it was dietary. He and I both experimented with breads dipped in imported palm oils to see if this would enhance the colour in our birds and did not see much progression with this after 2 - 3 seasons of experimentation. We theorized that it could be sunlight that synthesized the colour in the skin and until recently I thought it made complete sense. Human skin carries the pigments of melanin in different levels of races according to the geographic climates they originate from. When we brought the shipment of 12 birds in, the intensity of mustard slowly decreased. In the flight they were in, the back of the aviary was very dark and the front was lit as sub-adequate conditions with fluorescent lights which read at approximately 10-15 foot candles. Our breeding pair resides right in front of a glass wall to outside where they get copious amounts of natural light and photoperiods. This offers their exposed skin the capacity to develop these natural yellow pigments; they do retain most of the mustard yellow but could still be more rich and intense. Hyacinthine macaws as juveniles have little or no yellow on their periopthalmic ring or mouth skin patch, as they get older, the yellow develops to a more intense rich colour. Based on this theory, one can argue that if A. hyacinthinus or O. manilata are not given adequate to no light, these colours will either be delayed or possibly not develop at all.

In the course of this paper’s writing, my alpha male from my first founder stock pair succumbed on October 12 2006 at approximately 17:00 hrs. This was the first day of snow this year, two hours north of Toronto where my red-billed toucans (R. tucanus) were still enjoying the crisp, fresh air and learning about the strange white flakes falling from the skies above them (by their choice with indoor/outdoor access). This male manilata was a wild caught male which has sired young with us for 7 years now. We are certain the bird died of old age and the bitter cold may have brought up some underlying problems on that day.

Matthias Reinschmidt, curator of Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain, and I both recently concluded that there is one major similarity with the manilatas and Spix’s macaws (Cyanopsitta spixii) of one characteristic no other species of macaw shares. Juvenile birds will keep the white lateral stripe on the upper maxillae from their development as young chick to approximately 6-8 months of age. This white stripe gets thinner as the bird gets older on the upper beak or maxillae. Over the years of correspondence with other aviculturists who work with manilatas in their care, their global status in aviculture has indeed proven to be the most difficult of the 17 species of macaws to reproduce. The challenges we have encountered caring for them have left us with nothing but ample motivation to learn more and more about these peculiar macaws.

Dave T. Longo
Longo's Aviaries Inc.

References Ffrench, R., J.P. O’Neill, D.R. Eckelberry, 1973. A guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago. Wynnewood, Pa., Livingston Pub. Co. U.S.A.
Voren, H. Sept. 1994. “The Mysterious Macaw”; Bird Breeder Magazine
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